As much as we hate to admit it, mainstream news is often full of subjectivity and bias. But how does this translate into science news? Science is a field based on truth and objectivity, and we would hope that the information we’re fed through journals and news sites is evidence-based, rather than ideologically biased.
The sad fact is that lots of popular science reporting is either over-hyped, filled with technical jargon or just plain wrong.
With so many ideologically driven news platforms just a click away, how do we know if what we are reading is true? Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when evaluating the credibility of your next science feed.
What is your source?
There is a fine line between science reporting and science propaganda. With so much competition in the world of journalism, it is not uncommon for science journalists to use popular ideologies to support facts — or vice versa.
Certain news sites are notorious for this — twisting the truth in their favor, or over-exaggerating reality just for a few extra views. Huffington Post, Fox News and The New York Times are only a few of the mainstream sources commonly guilty of this. For quality science reporting, Science, Economist and The Atlantic are generally reliable. They even delve a bit deeper into technical details.
If science isn’t your forté and you’re simply looking for some basic, yet credible, mainstream tech news, Vox or The Guardian should do the trick.
What is their source?
More often than you would expect, science journalists turn to big names — like celebrities or CEOs — for information and advice. This may attract attention, but should we be trusting medical and nutrition advice from celebrities? Or climate change science from top ranked oil/gas companies?
Public involvement in science communication is not inherently wrong by any means, but sources who have not been trained in the sciences tend to lack evidence, or are biased towards their respective industries and causes. Whenever possible, try to read the primary research itself, or news pieces interviewing relevant researchers. These pieces will have the most reliable information.
How far is the information from its primary source?
Remember that childhood game “telephone”? You would pass along a message through a chain of people in anticipation of distorting the original message into something hilarious and ridiculous. The same thing happens with facts and information.
The further information gets passed along, the farther away it tends to be from the truth. Try to find articles that are as close as possible to the primary research. Articles written by academics themselves or direct interviews with relevant researchers will have the most reliable information you can find.
Beware of clickbait headlines
How many times have you clicked an alluring link, only to realize that the content of the site wasn’t nearly as important as the title lead on? Headlines such as, “We Already Genetically Modify Pets And Plants. Are Humans Next?” or “8 Terrifying Things That Will Put Your Life Into Perspective” are designed to make readers think that some absolute truth has been discovered, or some life-changing science is about to take place. But are you really missing out by not reading these types of articles?
More times than not, articles with clickbaity titles are vastly overhyped. They tend to draw dramatic conclusions based on one or two studies, not providing readers with a realistic view of their potential implications.
Is it almost too good to be true?
As sentimental beings, we are naturally drawn to those stories that capture our imagination, and leave us with a sense of awe. But just like clickbaity headlines, these types of awe-inducing articles are often there just for buzz. As awesome and mind-boggling as science can be, don’t be fooled by writers over-sensationalizing their topic and drowning out the hard facts with fluffy anecdotes.
An article from the Daily Mail, for example, claimed that our love for decaffeinated coffee has damaged our ozone layer, and delayed its repair for up to 30 years. But in reality, this article was based on a single study that showed the impacts of a particular chemical that used to be used in decaff coffee — among other products — in the 1970s. The primary research wasn’t even centered on coffee. Slightly over-dramatic, no?
Think for yourself
You may not be a professor with 20 years of research on your back, but neither are most science writers.
If something doesn’t make sense to you, odds are that you are not the only one with questions. Critical thinking is essential in science, so don’t be afraid to challenge what you’re fed. Find more reliable sources, think critically and find your most trustworthy science.